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Artists After the Escape: Chilean writer and director Antonio Skarmeta


Antonio Skarmeta, author of the global best-seller "The Postman," was also a refugee. When Augusto Pinochet overthrew Socialist President Salvador Allende in Chile, the writer left the country — and landed in Berlin.

A neon advertisement glows in the background of the Berlin night as the 30-something-year-old man with the impish smile and walrus mustache introduces himself to a German TV audience. "My name is Antonio Skarmeta. I am a writer. I left Chile in 1973 because of the coup against the democratic President Salvador Allende. Since then, my country has been under the control of a military dictatorship."

Antonio Skarmeta had already been living in West Berlin for eight years along with his wife and their two sons, ages 13 and 15, who had spent the majority of their lives here. They made their new home in the West Berlin neighborhood of Charlottenburg, a meeting point for the Chilean community in the 80s.

Young Skarmeta in his 1983 film, "If we lived together"

In the 1983 TV film "If We Lived Together," Skarmeta tells the German audience about his daily life, about the dreams and desires of exiled Chileans, about how difficult it is to find a job and a home. But he also speaks of group celebrations in the park with Chilean music and empanadas — joyful celebrations, yet full of longing for the distant homeland.

Around 5,000 Chileans like Skarmeta fled to the Federal Republic of Germany after the Chilean military putsch. Many thousands also headed to the communist German Democratic Republic, also known as East Germany.

On to the capital Santiago

Skarmeta was born on November 7, 1940 in Antofagasta — in the warmer region of northern Chile. It is called the "pearl of the Pacific." After primary school, which he partially attended in Argentina, he went to the Instituto Nacional in the Chilean capital, Santiago. It remains the country's most prestigious school for boys. It was an education for life.

"The school taught me what democracy means," Skarmeta told DW in an interview for the multimedia feature "After the Escape." "People from all different classes attended the school: the poor, the middle-class, the rich," the author said. "It taught me how to deal with people from all different backgrounds."

For the "After the Escape" project, Skarmeta returned to his old school in Santiago de Chile

After graduating, Skarmeta studied philosophy in Santiago. Garnering a renowned Fulbright scholarship, he moved to the United States in the mid-1960s with his wife, artist Cecilia Boisier. They had two sons and the writer published his first stories.

It was a success for the young man whose parents were European immigrants. Just before World War I broke out, they left their little Croatian island of Brac. It is a world Skarmeta passionately describes in his novel "The Poet's Wedding."

Chile's September 11

The sun was shining on September 11, 1973 when the radio announced that there was "rain over Santiago." Skarmeta was sitting in his office at the Universidad de Chile where he had meanwhile started teaching.

He became alarmed, because "rain over Santiago" was a code word for a military coup, which Democrats had feared for some while. It wouldn't have been the first: The military had already attempted one coup against Socialist President Salvador Allenda in June, but it failed.

It was different this time around. Soldiers occupied the parliament and shelled the radio broadcaster that had announced the code words. President Allende died the same day in the governmental palace "La Moneda."

In 1973, the Chilean military bombarded La Moneda, the seat of the president

Gyms turned into concentration camps

Thousands of Chileans were arrested over the following days. Some were randomly picked up off the streets — because they had long hair or were dressed like hippies.

One of the cameramen of the special feature "After the Escape" will never forget how he too was detained back then, like thousands of others, in the "Estadio Nacional," Santiago's soccer stadium.

Several sports complexes were turned into coup leader Augusto Pinochet's concentration camps. Over 2,000 people died in the camps; more than 35,000 people suffered from torture and imprisonment. Over 1,000 remain missing today. They are known as "the disappeared."

As an avid supporter of President Salvador Allende, Skarmeta was also in danger. A German friend, director Peter Lilienthal, advised him to leave the country as soon as possible.

After spending a few months in Argentina, Skarmeta received a scholarship in 1974 from the DAAD, the German Academic Exchange Service, to go to Berlin. His family followed him there. "I left the country willingly," Skarmeta explained. "I was not tortured; I only lost my job. That's not much compared to what happened to other people."

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
Chile's September 11

September 11, 1973, changed the lives of many Chileans forever. General Augusto Pinochet, commander in chief of the Chilean army, overthrew the incumbent socialist president, Salvador Allende. The military bombarded the presidential palace "La Moneda" in the capital Santiago, arrested government supporters, leftists and Pinochet opponents.

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
Salvador Allende, a people's president

The socialist president had only been in office for three years before the coup. After having nationalized companies and dispossessed great land owners, his government faced massive opposition. The US didn't approve of the socialist leader in South America either. With the help of the CIA, Washington boycotted Allende's economic policies and incited Chile's media against the government.

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
The president's death

President Allende committed suicide on the day of the coup, stating in his farewell speech that his commitment to Chile did not allow him to take an easy way out. The photo above shows soldiers and firefighters carrying his body from the presidential palace. Meanwhile, the Estadio Nacional stadium was used as a concentration camp: 40,000 people were detained there, thousands tortured and killed.

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
A stadium as a concentration camp

Walter Ramirez, cameraman for DW's "After the Escape" feature, was also arrested. A student at the time, he was walking with a friend when soldiers arrested the two of them on September 11, 1973. His friend not only had long hair, he also had Argentinian pesos on him, which he needed to travel to his wife and son in Argentina. For days, the alleged "traitors" were kept in the national stadium.

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
Shots in the changing room

Walter Ramirez and his friend were locked into a changing room with nearly 100 other men. They all needed to share two bathrooms, while bored soldiers shot at the windows. After several days, Walter and his friend were released. To this day, he doesn't know why. Could it be because his father worked for a US company? The topic is taboo in his family.

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
General turned dictator: Augusto Pinochet

The head behind the coup was General Augusto Pinochet, supreme commander of the armed forces. He governed Chile from 1973 until 1990 in a dictatorial style. Political parties and leftist trade unions were forbidden. Freedom of opinion ceased to exist. Despite all this, the Pinochet regime continued to be supported by the US, as well as some politicians in Germany.

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
Torture, assassinations and book burnings

Chilean artists, writers and intellectuals were also persecuted. Song writer Victor Jara was arrested, tortured and shot to death in a basketball stadium in Santiago. Books written by authors regarded as bothersome were burnt on the streets. Numerous opponents of the regime were to leave Chile over the next months and years.

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
Antonio Skarmeta: exile in Berlin

Author and university professor Antonio Skarmeta also fled Chile in 1973. For 16 years, he lived in exile in Berlin where he wrote "Nixpassiert" (Nothing Happened) and "The Postman," two highly successful books that were adapted into film several times. Exile was a theme that would dominate his life. His story is told in the DW special feature, "After the Escape."

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
Isabel Allende's flight from Chile

Another internationally acclaimed writer who left Chile is Isabel Allende, author of the bestseller "The House of the Spirits." In 1975, the journalist and women's rights activist fled to Venezuela. Incidentally, President Salvador Allende was not her uncle, as is often claimed, but the cousin of her father. In her novel "Paula," she describes her years in exile. She now lives in the US.

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
Numbered days for Pinochet

In August 1987, dictator Augusto Pinochet oversaw a military parade in honor of the 14th anniversary of his coup (picture). But his days were numbered. A national referendum on his political future was planned for October 1988. The opponents of his dictatorship mobilized all available forces. With a spectacular action, they initiated change for Chile.

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
A successful No campaign

In October 1988, the Chilean population decided whether or not Augusto Pinochet should run as the sole candidate during the next elections. Yes or no? A colorful campaign mobilized the masses. A majority dared to say no. It was the beginning of the end of the dictatorship.

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
Peaceful transition to democracy

In 1990, Pinochet handed over power to Christian Democrat Patricio Aylwin (right). However, until 1998, Pinochet continued serving as supreme commander of the armed forces. Implicated in over 300 criminal charges, a final verdict wasn't reached by the International Criminal Court before Augusto Pinochet's death at the age of 91, on December 10, 2006.

Artists After the Escape: Chile's coup, dictatorship and the path to democracy
The dictatorship's legacy in a divided society

It took a long time for Chile to deal with its former dictatorship. Democracy has by no means solved all problems. On this photo from March 2017, people demonstrate against the AFP pension system, which was privatized during the Pinochet era and still excludes many people from obtaining a pension. The dictatorship continues to haunt the country, but at least people can now demonstrate for change.

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A writer without his language?

Skarmeta could barely speak German when he came to Berlin. Both of his sons, ages seven and five when they arrived in Europe, picked up the language very quickly. "My older son would translate for me during conversations with others," Skarmeta recalled. "If someone was speaking really quickly on the telephone, I would hand over the phone to him and he would answer for me."

But Skarmeta was a writer. In exile, he lost his language and his readers. "I realized that it no longer made sense to communicate like I did with my Chilean readers — with all of the references to Chilean soccer players and film stars, or comments about streets and districts in Chilean cities. In other words, the things I had in common with Chileans." 

Hundreds of people were crowded into small locker rooms

People in exile — Skarmeta's subject

His novel "No pasó nada" (Nothing Happened) was published in 1978. In it, Skarmeta relates the story of a Chilean boy who has escaped into exile in Berlin with his family. Exile thus became one of Skarmeta's main subjects.

While in exile in Berlin, Skarmeta also wrote his most famous book, "Ardiente paciencia" (published as "The Postman" in English), which was turned into a film twice. It tells the story of a letter carrier who brings mail to Chile's most prestigious poet, Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda. The mailman learns from him how to use poetry to enamor his beloved.

What is a writer without his language?

Skarmeta was in fact friends with Neruda, and both of them supported Socialist President Allende. The Nobel laureate died 12 days after the September 1973 military coup — supposedly of cancer.

Only recently was it confirmed that cancer was not the cause of death. For years now, there has been speculation that Neruda was actually poisoned. This is just one of the mysteries that has remained since the period of Pinochet's dictatorship.

Pinochet ousted

Augusto Pinochet was voted out of office in 1988. The film "NO," based on Antonio Skarmeta's stage play, tells the story. The first free elections following the dictatorship occurred in 1989, prompting Skarmeta to return to Chile after 16 years in exile. The writer later returned to Berlin, working as Chilean ambassador from 2000 to 2003.

Antonio Skarmeta was Chilean ambassador to Germany for years

A family in two different worlds

Skarmeta once again lives in Santiage de Chile with his second wife, Nora Preperski, whom he met in Germany, and his youngest son. His two older sons stayed in Germany.

Escape and exile have enrooted his family in worlds far apart from one another — Europe and South America.

Asked if he finds the separation from his children and grandchildren difficult, Skarmeta aswered, "Not at all. What is difficult is living in a dictatorship like there was in Chile. When you live in a democratic country and know that your children are also living in a democracy, then your mind can be at rest."

Discover more about Antonion Skarmeta and other artists who had to find home in a foreign land in DW's online feature "After the Escape."

You can find the TV documentary "After the Escape" on YouTube.

Or watch it directly below:

42:31 mins.
DocFilm | 16.12.2017

Documentary: After the Escape - Finding Home in a Foreign Land

Susanne Spröer